Vélorution Saint-Michel: Making the bicycle a tool for change

A determined pedal stroke led Alexane Ferland and Collin Mayrand to join the 2019-2020 cohort of the Civic Incubator, in order to pursue their mission of encouraging as many people as possible to get on a bike.

Revolution through cycling

Appearing in the 1970s, the term vélorution refers to an international movement that seeks to encourage people to use non-polluting means of personal transport. Through urban gatherings, cyclists promote active mobility as an alternative to travelling by car while making a case for the importance of developing cycling infrastructure.

Image source : Vélorution’s website and social media

In Montréal, it is the advocacy group Le Monde à Bicyclette which, since 1975, has been working to defend the rights of cyclists in urban areas and to defend that “cycling is not just a sport, it is transportation.” Their actions include “cyclodramas” to make municipalities aware of the lack of infrastructure that would allow cyclists and pedestrians to move safely through city streets.

The bicycle thus becomes a tool for political protest and will provoke reflections about its use as an agent of change for many years to come.

Image Source : Le Monde à bicyclettes’s website

Relaunching vélorution in Montréal neighbourhoods

The Montréal-based organization Cyclo Nord-Sud, which has been recovering and restoring disused bicycles to ship them to Africa and Latin America for almost 20 years, decided in 2017 to re-orient part of its activities locally.

“After years of working within the framework of international cooperation programs, we started to receive local requests and, in addition, were facing an in-house questioning of our impact. That’s when the idea of Vélorution Saint-Michel began to take shape.”

Collin

If Saint-Michel was the neighbourhood chosen to initiate the first phase of the project, it is because of its geography, which is a source of difficulties in terms of sustainable mobility. Wedged between the former Miron and Francon quarries, it must address environmental and socio-economic challenges through its transport offer and compose with the realities of its population: 34.1% of are low-income earners and the unemployment rate hovers at 14.5%. Source: Ville de Montréal

“The neediest people are the ones who have the most difficulty getting around because of the costs associated with cars and public transport. Yet in Saint-Michel, 67% of trips are made within a radius of less than five kilometres. The most efficient mode of urban transportation for such distances is the bicycle. However, only 1% of trips within the neighbourhood are made with this mode of transport.”

Alexane

By democratizing the use of bicycles, Vélorution Saint-Michel’s goal is to bring autonomy to marginalized residents and reduce the financial burden associated with mobility by offering a practical transportation solution that helps reduce carbon emissions.

Photo credit : MIS

Reaching out to the Saint-Michel residents

How can the people of Saint-Michel be encouraged to adopt cycling as a means of transportation? The team in charge of Vélorution imagined a two-phase implementation.

The first phase consisted of the design of the very first mobile bike workshop, custom-built and installed on a trailer with everything necessary for basic bike mechanics repairs. Travelling through neighbourhood parks, team volunteers offered decentralized, low-cost repair services throughout the summer of 2017. The public answered the call and this enabled the team to identify their real needs while promoting cycling at the same time.

On the strength of this success, Vélorution Saint-Michel launched the second phase aimed at developing a fixed point of service to make up for the non-existent offer in the neighbourhood. On November 1, 2018, the first community workshop in Saint-Michel was inaugurated in partnership with Loisirs Communautaires Saint-Michel, La TOHU and the Ville de Montréal. It offers a permanent cycling-related work and learning space for people in the area.

In addition to inexpensive repairs and mechanical training, other services are also offered to raise awareness about the daily use of bicycles: activities in schools, sales of reconditioned bicycles, parts and accessories at low prices, initiation and bike rides.

These varied activities are supported by a number of different partners and this raises some questions about the sustainability of Vélorution Saint-Michel. Since its launching, the project has relied on grants to fund its activities and offer accessible and affordable services to the people of Saint-Michel. The lack of recurring financing has prompted Vélorution Saint-Michel to review its model and innovate in its operations.

Image source : Vélorution’s website and social media

Integrating the Civic Incubator and taking a fresh look

“We knew about the MIS and the Civic Incubator program from the feedback of the previous cohort. Our motivation for being part of the program was to take a fresh look at the issues, design a promising solution and, by structuring a solid project, facilitate access to external resources and partners.”

Colin

“It was a great opportunity to advance Vélorution. The Civic Incubator program is very condensed. We use it with the other team members as we distill its content and build on certain of its components to further refine our thinking. We knew that the tools provided by the MIS would accompany us in the next phases of the implementation of the project.”

Alexane

Among the resources of the Civic Incubator that particularly helped the duo: the development of the network and the exploration of other projects by exchanging with the entire cohort as well as with external stakeholders.

The stakeholder and target audience workshops were also crucial:

Our mission was to reach out to a large part of the population, especially the most vulnerable, in order to introduce them to cycling and to instill new habits. With the workshop on target audiences, it became clear to us that we should focus more on youth and develop this part of our activities in particular.”

Alexane

Already involved with the youth of Saint-Michel, Cyclo Nord-Sud is the agent of the Cycliste Averti program, in partnership with Vélo Québec and local schools, which aims to teach good cycling practices in the city and provide mechanical training to young people.

“In Saint-Michel, young people are more susceptible to drop out of school. By encouraging them to cycle, we are helping to improve their well-being and thus their academic performance. Also, by training them in bicycle mechanics, we had the opportunity to alternately support two young people in their school career over the past two years. We have successfully validated the concept on a small scale and we now wish to see bigger. Indeed, it is by ricochet and thanks to the influence of the youngest among their entourage that a larger part of the population will be affected thereby achieving a multiplier effect on the living conditions of the neighbourhood.”

Alexane

This is how Gagne ton vélo, a contest offering every young person the opportunity to upgrade and personalize their own bike, was created. Working with a cohort of thirty youths, volunteers will pass on their passion for bicycle mechanics to aspiring cyclists who will be able to maintain the two-wheeled vehicle with which they will leave at the end of the training, thus becoming ambassadors for the practice of cycling.

In addition to maintaining a link with volunteers whose expertise is valued, the project will catalyze a strengthening of the community and create a sense of belonging in the neighbourhood, while bringing elected officials closer to youth.

“Infrastructure is essential to ensure the safety of cyclists on the roads. The safer cycling is, the more cyclists there will be and the greater the opportunities for active mobility. Unfortunately, Saint-Michel borough officials are already dealing with other problems such as unsanitary housing and food deserts. The construction of bicycle paths is not one of their priorities. We are working to put an end to this vicious circle.”

Alexane

Vélorution Saint-Michel is indeed involved with the municipality, the Table de quartier Vivre Saint-Michel en santé and several organizations in the area, working to give the neighbourhood a vision with respect to cycling by advocating active mobility as a vector for change: healthier lifestyles, empowerment of the population, better academic or professional skills, and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2019, Vélorution was launched in the Côte-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grâce borough. The strong support of local elected officials and the enthusiastic reception given to this development validates Vélorution’s vision of establishing itself in all Montréal neighbourhoods. In the context of physical distancing due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the streets recently designated for cyclists and pedestrians, bicycles are sure to attract new enthusiasts and drive Montréal to become a better cycling city!

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